July 22: Song of Songs 4:1-5

Song 4:1-7

With this section, 4:1-7, we move into a new phase of the Song. The love poetry suddenly becomes even more erotic, with more detailed descriptions of the lovers’ beauty and sexual appeal. Since 3:6-11 depicted a wedding scene (with a focus on the wedding bed), it would be natural to view these erotic songs as set during the wedding night. Indeed, for those commentators inclined to a moralistic reading of the Song, such eroticism virtually requires that the young couple be married.

The problem with this moralistic approach is that, as the graphic love songs extend into chapter 5, we suddenly find ourselves back in the world of furtive, secret meetings between the two lovers, indicating, rather clearly, that they are unmarried. How, then, can this be reconciled with the wedding scene of 3:6-11? The solution to this question lies in the overall structure of the Song. In my view, there are two major divisions, or movements, to the Song: the first (call it “Movement 1”) spans chapters 1-3, while the second (“Movement 2”) covers the remainder of the Song (chaps. 4-8).

The two movements generally follow the same, simple narrative arc. The two youths confess their love and attraction to one another, taking every opportunity to come together for a romantic/sexual encounter, in spite of the social and practical barriers to their meeting. Ultimately, they express their intention to be married, and each movement closes with an anticipation of the couple’s wedding (chap. 8 being roughly parallel to 3:4-11).

Movement 2 is more expansive, but contains many of the same phrases and motifs from Movement 1, developing and restating them, like variations on a (musical) theme. The nature of this expansion can be illustrated by the opening section 4:1-7, which essentially develops the declaration by the young man in 1:15 (cf. the earlier note on this verse), expanding it into a song. The declaration by the young woman (1:16-17) is developed in a similar way. The two lovers take turns praising the physical beauty (and sexual appeal) of the other, focusing on one body part at a time. In the tradition of Arabic love poetry, this sort of song is known as a wasf, and it dominates throughout chapters 4-7.

Song 4:1-5

In this first wasf, the young man sings the praise of his beloved’s beauty, beginning with her eyes and concluding, in rather tantalizing fashion, with her breasts. Let us briefly consider each portion of this song.

Verse 1a—Eyes

“See, (how) you are beautiful, my companion!
See, (how) you are beautiful, your eyes (like) doves!”

This couplet is repeated verbatim from 1:15; on the specific imagery (of the dove, etc), cf. the discussion in the earlier note.

Verse 1b—Hair

“From behind your veil your hair
(is) like a flock of goats
streaming (down) from mount Gil’ad.”

The derivation of the noun hM*x^ is uncertain, but the context makes reasonably clear that it refers to a woman’s veil; apart from the Song (also at v.3 and 6:7), the word occurs only in Isa 47:2. The meaning of the verb vl^G` is even less certain; it occurs only in the Song (here and in 6:5). It may be related to the root gl¾ in Ugaritic, and, if so, then it would seem to refer to the movement of water (i.e., flowing, streaming). This would fit the imagery here, of a ‘stream’ of goats descending down the side of a mountain. Clearly the image relates to thick, flowing locks of dark hair. The plural <yZ]u! is masculine in form, but refers to female goats.

Verse 2—Teeth

“Your teeth (are) like a flock of shaved (sheep)
that have come up from the washing,
all of them twin, bearing a double
and none is childless among them.”

The image of shaved/shorn sheep relates to both smoothness and whiteness; in addition, the association with the washing of the sheep adds an aspect of glistening wetness. The phrasing in the last two lines is a bit awkward, with its mixed metaphor, but the basic idea is clear enough: her teeth are neatly paired and none are missing.

Syntactically, each of the last three lines begins with the prefixed relative particle (-v#); however, translating all three of these in sequence would result in very awkward poetry, and so I have literally rendered only the first of these (in the second line).

Verse 3—Mouth

“Like a thread of crimson (are) your lips,
indeed, your place of speech (is) beautiful,
(and) like a slice of pomegranate (is) your cheek
from behind your veil.”

The focus here is on the red color of the woman’s mouth. The meaning of the noun hQ*r^ is not entirely certain. In Judg 4:21-22; 5:26 it seems to refer to the side of the (fore)head; while here the parallel would be the side of the mouth. Perhaps the root meaning of thinness (i.e., softness) is in view. Even so, it is difficult to decide whether the mouth itself or the soft flesh of the cheek is intended; many commentators assume the latter.

The use of the noun rB*d=m! to refer to the mouth is peculiar; literally it means “place of speech”, and that is how I have translated it above. It seems likely that there is an intentional place on the more common rB*d=m!, from a separate root rbd, meaning “place out back” —i.e., the hinterland, desert, wilderness, etc; the allusion would be to the steppe-land, where flocks and herds would graze (cf. on verse 5 below).

Verse 4—Neck

“Like a great (tower) of David (is) your neck,
built in (perfect) arrangement!
A thousand protective (cover)s hang upon it,
all (the) shields of the strong (one)s.”
Note: the meaning of the italicized expression is uncertain (cf. the discussion below)

A lD*g+m! (= loDg+m!) is literally a “great (i.e. tall) place”, often referring to a tower of some kind. It is uncertain whether the “tower of David” is meant to refer to a specific structure; more likely, it is a general reference to the fortifications of Zion—the fortified hilltop location taken over (from the Canaanites) by David and subsequently expanded. It was the location of the Temple and the royal Palace-complex, and its fortifications were described (and praised), for example, in Psalm 48 (on the imagery in that Psalm, cf. my recent study).

The plural noun toYP!l=T^ is perhaps the most obscure word in the entire Song; it occurs only here in the Old Testament, and attempts to determine its etymology and fundamental meaning remain guesses in the dark. One suggestion is that here it means something like “courses (of stone)” or “terraces”, referring to the manner in which the structure is built. Another possibility is as a more abstract plural, used in an adverbial sense, indicating the purpose or result of the building—i.e., something like “built for splendor, built for greatness”. Since the root would seem to be ypl, which, though otherwise unattested in the OT, has been identified as meaning “arrange (in rows, etc)”, I tentatively translate the prepositional expression as “in (perfect) arrangement”.

If the idea of a terraced structure is in view, then it may relate to the woman’s shape, with her neck broadening out below into her chest and shoulders. The necklace at the base of the neck might add to this impression. The “shields” hung on the tower clearly refer to a necklace and other ornaments that may hang from the woman’s neck. The meaning of the noun fl#v# is uncertain, but I take it as more or less synonymous with /g@m* (“place of protection,” i.e., “shield”). It is also possible that fl#v# refers to another kind of armament or piece of armor.

All of this imagery suggests that a long neck was part of the ideal of feminine beauty in Israel, just as it seems to have been in Egypt—cf. the love song cited by Fox (pp. 52, 130); clearly, that song is a wasf that resembles, in many ways, our song here:

“Behold her… .
shining, precious, white of skin,
lovely of eyes when gazing;
sweet her lips when speaking:
she has no excess of words;
long of neck, white of breast,
her hair true lapis lazuli;
her arms surpass gold,
her fingers are like lotuses.”

Verse 5—Breasts

“(Your) two breasts (are) like two young stags,
twins of a gazelle, grazing among (the) lilies.”

The young man ends his praise of the girl’s body parts somewhat abruptly once he reaches the breasts. An intriguing suggestion is that, overcome with desire, he now expresses his wish to unite with his beloved. The poetic imagery does seem to bear out this dramatic (and yet playful) line of interpretation. Indeed, the motif of the grazing (male) animals serves as an image with a dual-meaning: (1) the shape of the two animals grazing side by side, with their necks curved down, resemble the woman’s breasts; (2) the grazing represents the young man enjoying the woman’s beauty (including her breasts). This latter aspect was emphasized in 2:16, and occurs again at 6:2.

The Hebrew word for “breast” (dv^, šad) is likely related to Akkadian šadu, “mountain”, suggesting that the primary point of reference is to a mound, and that a woman’s breast is called dv^ because of its resemblance to a mound (or mountain). The Song itself is clearly aware of this association of images, playing on them here in vv. 5-6; this will be discussed further in the next note.

Most commentators automatically translate the masculine plural form <yr!p*u& as fawns, parallel with the she-goats of v. 1 and the ewes, etc. However, I do not know that this is correct. Elsewhere in the Song (2:9, 17; 8:14), the word rp*u* clearly refers to a strong young male animal (stag, ram, etc); moreover, as noted above, the act of grazing (that is, on the woman’s beauty) is certainly being done by the male (the young man).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Jewish commentators tend to explain the woman’s beauty either in terms of the Temple (of Solomon) or of the Torah and those who are faithful/devoted to it. The comparative images used in these verses were interpreted in a variety of ways, drawing upon examples from Israelite historical and religious tradition. Particularly creative is the way that the washed wool of the sheep and the scarlet color of the thread were combined together by the Targum on v. 3, bringing to mind Isa 1:18 and associating that passage with the High Priest’s prayer on the Day of Atonement:

“…and his words changed the sins of Israel which resembled a scarlet thread and made them white like clean wool.” (Pope, p. 464)

In verse 5, the Targum gave a Messianic interpretation of the two breasts, viewing them as symbolic of the two Messiahs who are to come. Along with the Midrash Rabbah, the Targum also explained them in terms of Moses and Aaron, ‘twin’ brothers of a common ‘gazelle’ (Jochebed), who were the beauty and ornament of Israel, particularly in their association with the giving/teaching of the Torah.

For Christian commentators, the flock-imagery naturally brought to mind the Church (believers) as a flock of sheep, and the ecclesiastical associations that come with the motif. Ambrose is a good example of the ethical-religious approach to explaining the erotic praise of the woman’s beauty. Like the Targum (cf. above), he especially draws upon the image of the whiteness of the washed sheep as symbolic of baptism and the washing away of sin (he likewise cites Isa 1:18 in this regard); the white garments worn by believers play on this same symbolism.

Gregory of Nyssa focuses specifically on the teeth of the woman, relating the motif to the spiritual nourishment that comes from eating the Word (the living Bread from heaven); with the teeth the soul chops up and digests the Divine mysteries, implying a measure of understanding and interpretation, to the point that one is able to communicate the truth to others.

Apponius explains the ‘scarlet thread’ of the woman’s mouth in terms of those martyrs who shed their blood for the faith, while the redness of the cheek indicates modesty and chastity—very much in line with typical early Christian ethical (and ascetic) interpretation. Along these same lines, the breasts represent those ministers from whom other believers may suck the nourishing milk of Christian teaching. Such an explanation is about as far from the original erotic imagery of the Song as one can possibly imagine! Gregory of Nyssa, admittedly, gave a more mystical interpretation of the two breasts, as representing the two aspects of the Christian person—whether viewed as the individual soul or collectively as the Church—the “outer” and the “inner” man (to use the Pauline terminology), united in a single being (cf. Pope, p. 471).

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).


July 13: Song of Songs 2:16-17

Song 2:16-17

“My love (belongs) to me and I to him,
he pastures among the lilies.
Until (the time) when the day breathes,
and the shadows fly (away),
turn round—you, my love, (and) be like
a gazelle (going) over (the) mountains of rt#b#!”

This is the final song of the section spanning 2:8-17; I am treating it as a poetic unit, though it is possible to read it as containing two separate lyrics (vv. 16 and 17). The young woman is speaking.

The opening line is a fundamental declaration of mutual love between the boy and girl, being repeated (with some variation) in 6:3 and 7:11[10]. The sense of belonging to (l=) another can be understood in a covenantal sense, and it should be no surprise that Jewish commentators interpreted v. 16 in terms of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel (cf. below).

The verb hu*r* in the second line is somewhat ambiguous. It fundamentally refers to the act of the herder, leading the herd (or flock) to pasture; at the same time, the verb sometimes specifically denotes the grazing (feeding) by the animal. Thus, the line can be translated two ways: (a) “he pastures (his herd) among the lilies”, or (b) “he grazes on the lilies”. The second is the more vivid and concrete image, and may indeed be what is intended here.

The blossoming flowers (lilies) symbolize the sexuality of the young woman, as in vv. 1-2—both in their beauty and freshness. To “graze” on the blossoms thus is a sexual image, referring to the young man enjoying the beauty and appeal of the young woman. The same imagery occurs in 6:2, where the grazing/pasturing (again the verb hu*r*) in the garden is coupled with the motif of “plucking” the flowers. This is one of the clearly erotic images in the Song, suggestive of sexual intercourse, that prompts many commentators to adopt an allegorical line of interpretation. On the specific type of flower indicated by /v^ov, cf. the note on vv. 1-2.

There are certain ambiguities in the second lyric (v. 17) as well. The position of the initial temporal clause creates a certain difficulty: does it relate to second line of v. 16 (“he pastures/grazes…until”), or to what follows in v. 17? In my view, the clause anticipates the imperative bs) (“turn around”), adding dramatic tension to the scene.

The time indicated is the coming of morning (dawn), expressed two ways: “when the day breathes [vb j^WP]” and “(when) the shadows flee [vb sWn]”. Daybreak represents the moment when the young lovers must part—a traditional motif in love poetry. The reason for parting, and the urgency to do so, is to avoid having their nighttime tryst discovered. This imagery leaves no doubt that the two lovers are unmarried, however problematic this may be from a religious and ethical standpoint.

The force of the imperative bs) is debated by commentators. The young woman may be telling the young man to “turn toward” her, or to “turn away.” The verb literally means “turn around”, often in the sense of “return”. The context of the coming dawn argues strongly in favor of this latter sense: i.e., “turn back” and leave while there is still time (before it is day). If one opts for the former meaning, then the woman is urging him to stay with her (for as long as he can) until daybreak.

Since the young man initially came to her “like a gazelle” leaping over the mountains, it is fitting that he departs in the same way. He should go back the same way he came, just as strong, swift, and beautiful, “like a gazelle (going) over the mountains”. The MT reads “like a gazelle or a young stag…,” repeating the wording from v. 9a. However, in my translation above I have adopted the shorter reading (apparently) of the Qumran manuscript 4QCantb. The shorter reading results in cleaner and more dramatic poetry, but the longer reading of MT (also reflected by the LXX) may well be original.

The meaning of the final word rt#b# remains quite uncertain. There are three possibilities:

    • It refers to a village SW of Jerusalem, Beter (= Beitar), identified with modern Bittîr. This would add a bit of local color, keeping with the Jerusalem locale/setting for the Song. The reference would be to the hills west of Jerusalem, where gazelles can still be seen today (cf. Fox, p. 116).
    • It is a word derived from the root rt^B*, apparently meaning “cut in pieces, cut (in two)”. This verb occurs only in Gen 15:10, along with the related noun (rt#B#), in the plural (“[cut up] pieces”); the only other occurrence of the noun is in Jer 34:18-19. It is still unclear what the meaning would be in context here; the main possibilities are:
      • Mountains that are cut/split into jagged or rugged cliffs, corresponding to the imagery in v. 14a
      • The cutting/splitting in two alludes to the separation of the lovers
      • The two mountain peaks, resembling a woman’s breasts, make for an erotic/sexual image, referring to the lovers continuing love-making (until dawn)
    • The similar expression in 8:14, and the close of the Song, is “…mountains of spices [<ym!c*b=]”, referring specifically to the fragrant powder from the balsam plant; based on this parallel, rt#b# would have a comparable meaning

All things considered, the second line of interpretation above is to be preferred. If v. 17 relates to the departure of the young man, then it seems likely that the idea of separation (between the lovers) is primarily in view. However, the sexual motif (i.e., resemblance of the split peaks to the woman’s breasts) cannot be completely disregarded. Pope (p. 410) cites a couplet from a Sumerian Shulgi-hymn that could be understood as a similar sexual motif:

“To prance on my holy bosom like / a ‘lapis lazuli’ calf, you are fit.”

The different expression in 8:14 is probably due to the different situation (for the two lovers) within the overall context of the Song.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

As noted above, the Jewish Midrash interpreted the opening line of v. 16 in terms of the covenant between Israel and YHWH—whereby Israel “belongs to” YHWH as His people, and He as their God. This covenant bond guarantees Israel protection from their enemies, as long as they remain faithful. The Targum and Midrash related the “mountains of rt#b#” both to the covenant scene in Gen 15:10 (cf. above) and to Mt. Moriah as the traditional site of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. The phrase “until the day breathes” was explained from the historical standpoint of the shortening of Israel’s time of bondage in Egypt. Also noted was the historical connection of Bether (as a village near Jerusalem, cf. above) with the city Beithar, where the Romans crushed the Bar-Kochba revolt (cf. Pope, p. 411).

[Origen’s Commentary on the Song only survives up to his comments on 2:15; thus, unfortunately, for early Christian interpretation of the remainder of the Song, we must rely almost entirely on later sources, from the 4th and 5th centuries.]

Gregory of Nyssa explains vv. 16-17 in light of the earlier lines of the Song, including the “catching” (and removal) of the “little foxes” (evil influences and temptations to sin) mentioned in v. 15. With these removed, the soul is able to be united more perfectly with God, expressed by the declaration of mutual love (and belonging) in v. 16. The soul thus rises to greater heights, through contemplation, looking upon the Beloved (Christ, the Word of God) as he leaps over the mountaintops.

In the Commentary on the Song by Nilus of Ancyra (died c. 430 A.D.), these verses are explained in a more doctrinal light, identifying the declaration of v. 16a with an orthodox confession of faith in God and Christ (citing 1 Cor 8:5-6). The lilies who are shepherded by Bridegroom (Christ) are explained as the “souls who are free of care and anxiety… , who pay no mind to earthly things because their minds are truly fixed upon the kingdom of the heavens”. The “mountains of Bethel” (reading Bethel for Bether) are understood in a comprehensive sense, as the location—covering both the highest and deepest parts of the earth—in which the incarnate Word of God has made his revelation (i.e., the Gospel) known. He descends into the valleys, seeking out people, because of his overpowering love for humankind, in order to bring them up “to a higher and better state”. (Translations by Richard A. Norris, in The Church’s Bible: The Song of Songs [Eerdmans: 2003], pp. 130-2).

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).

July 12: Song of Songs 2:15

Song 2:15

“Seize for us (the) foxes,
(all the) little foxes
ruining (the) vines—
even our blossom(ing) vines.”

This verse has proven to be one of the most enigmatic of the entire Song. On the surface, the little song in v. 15 has no obvious connection with either the prior lines (vv. 8-14) or those following (vv. 16-17). Nor is it at all clear who the speaker is supposed to be. These lines have the character of a proverbial folk-song, the sort of ditty one could imagine being sung by vineyard-workers. It may have been included to give some local color and texture to the Song. However, whatever the origins of this verse, there can be no doubt that in the context of the Song it relates to the sexuality of the young woman, and/or to the love shared by the two youths. This is very much the symbolism of the vineyard throughout the Song.

There would seem to be three primary ways of understanding this verse in context:

    • It represents the voice of a chorus, the concerns of the young woman’s family (and also the wider community) to safeguard her blossoming sexuality. The “little foxes” are those amorous young men who would “ruin” the purity of her sexuality. This line of interpretation also reflects the social barriers and opposition against the two young lovers coming together for a romantic/sexual encounter.
    • The speaker is the young man, in which case there are two possible interpretations:
      (a) It reflects his desire to keep any other young men (“little foxes”) away from his beloved, or
      (b) The “foxes” refer, more generally, to anything that might interrupt or spoil their time together
    • The speaker is the young woman, and her words follow the same line of interpretation as that above; however, if she is speaking, the verse would perhaps tend to be part of playful banter between the two lovers, akin to that in 1:7-8 (cf. the prior note on those verses).

The Hebrew noun lu*Wv, of uncertain derivation, is usually understood as referring to a fox or jackal (or similar animal). The catching of foxes would be a relatively common occurrence, in order to protect the fields and vineyards. In Judges 15:4, Samson catches a large number of ‘foxes’, though for a rather different purpose. Here they clearly refer to something which could “ruin” (vb lb^j* III) the young woman’s sexuality, and/or the sexual experience of the two lovers. The participle indicates that the ‘foxes’ are regularly ruining things, or are likely to do so. The girl’s sexuality (and/or the love shared between the two) is currently “blossoming”, according to the fundamental meaning of the noun rd^m*s= in the final line.

A strong argument can be made that these “foxes” represent amorous young men who are ‘on the prowl’ for attractive young women. This is the sense of the imagery, for example, of the a)lwpeke$ in the Odes of Theocritus (I. 48-50; V. 112). Yet, this need not be understood in an entirely negative sense, especially if the image is considered from the standpoint of the young woman. In an Egyptian love song from P. Harris 500 (a 19th dynasty papyrus manuscript), the girl speaks fondly of her lover as a little “wolf” or “jackal” (wnš); the context of this song is, my opinion, close to that of the Song here:

“My heart is not yet done with your lovemaking,
my (little) wolf cub [wnš]!
Your liquor is (your) lovemaking.
I (will not) abandon it
until blows drive me away
I will not listen to their advice
to abandon the one I desire.”
(translation Fox, p. 10)

In my view, the best explanation of this verse is as the voice of society and custom, adding a sense of tension to the lovers’ attempt to be together. I am reminded of the echo of Brangäne’s warning in the middle of the second act love-duet of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. The problem with this view is that there is no clear shift to a different speaker; yet the Song is somewhat fluid in this regard, as we have already seen in 1:4, and by the regular refrain in 2:7, etc. Shifts between speakers are not always clearly indicated, and the ‘voice’ of other groups or segments of society occasionally crop up within the fabric of the Song.

There are unquestionably certain social barriers to the lovers meeting. The overall scenario depicted in vv. 8-17 is of the young woman tucked away at home (as she would have been, as a practical matter, throughout the rainy winter season). There the young man comes to her, calling her away to a rendezvous, to a secluded and private spot where the two of them can be together. This very much reflects her own desire as well, and, in v. 14 (cf. the discussion in the previous note), the two lovers would seem to be on their way to such an encounter, seeking out a secluded spot. In this context, v. 15 can well be viewed as a kind of warning against a sexual encounter.

On the other hand, if the speaker of v. 15 is identified with either the young man or the young woman, then the sense of the song would be of a concern that nothing should spoil (or interrupt) their time together. Many commentators would understand the refrain in 2:7 etc in a similar light. Lovers naturally would want their moment to be as perfect as possible, especially if it necessarily must be brief (i.e., a single night, before the coming of dawn [v. 17]). No “little foxes” must be allowed to ruin the “vineyard” of their love.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

The Targum and Midrash explain the “foxes” as the enemies of Israel (Egyptians, Assyrians, Edomites, Amalekites, etc), while the righteous ones in Israel represent the blossoming of the vine. The Talmud (b. Sotah 12a) applies the verse specifically to the historical scenario of Exod 2:3ff, which interprets our song in a reverse sense—i.e., of the enemies of Israel (Egyptians) calling to “catch for us” the Israelite male children (“little foxes”); cf. Pope, p. 403.

Origen, in his Commentary, explains the “foxes” as the forces of sin and wickedness that threaten to “destroy the bloom of the virtues of the soul and ruin the fruit of faith”. Such tempting thoughts, placed in the ‘vineyard’ of the soul by demons, need to be caught; and they need to be taken away while they are still “little”, before they are allowed to grow to the point that, embedded in the soul as habitual behavior, they can no longer be driven out. This is very much an ethical (and ascetic) line of interpretation, but, for many early Christians, such ‘purification of the soul’ goes hand in hand with spiritual growth and enlightenment. In this line of interpretation, of course, the young man (Bridegroom) represents the Word of God (Christ). Within the context of the Church, and in terms of Christian doctrine, the “foxes” are those heretics and teachers of error, especially those who give false teaching regarding the person of Christ.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his sermon on this verse, gives greater emphasis to the role of angels and ministering spirits as the hunters who are directed to catch these “little foxes” —forces of sin which tend to “make their dens in men’s hearts”. The spiritual forces of evil also must be conquered (i.e., “caught”) from within, but it is not possible for the soul to do so purely by its own strength. It needs the help and assistance of the Word of God. However, if these forces are conquered, the soul will “win a grace that will be [its] own”, and the vine (of our human nature) will begin to put forth “clusters of fruit with the flower of perfection”.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
Translations from Origen’s Commentary on the Song are from R. P. Lawson, Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, Ancient Christian Writers [ACW], vol. 26 (Newman/Paulist Press: 1956).
The translations of Gregory of Nyssa here are by Herbert Musurillo, S.J., in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, edited by Musurillo and selected by Jean Daniélou (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).


July 7: Song of Songs 2:8-9

Earlier this year I began a series of daily notes on the Song of Songs. This series was interrupted (with the note on 2:6-7) for the Lenten, Easter and Pentecost seasons, and I am taking up with it again now this summer. This particular book of Scripture has long been controversial, due to the frankly erotic character of much of the love poetry in the Song. The longstanding tendency, among both Jews and Christians, has been to interpret the poetry in an allegorical or spiritual sense. While such modes of interpretation are both valuable and important, I have studiously avoided them in these notes. Instead, I focus almost entirely on the text itself, and to the fundamental meaning and significance of the words and imagery in context. However, in each note, I do make mention of certain ways that Jews and early Christians have explained the poetic lines.

If there is a specific interpretive approach that I follow, it is that the poems of the Song are very much of a kind with ancient Near Eastern love poetry, and must be read in that light. In particular, I have focused on parallels in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry, rather than more recent Arabic and Palestinian examples, etc. For more on these matters, cf. the introductory note in this series.

Song 2:8-17

It is possible to view 2:8-17 as a distinct song or poetic section. In these notes, I prefer to analyze the Song on a narrower basis, looking at shorter individual lyrics. There is still much disagreement among commentators on how best to divide the Song and regarding theories of how it was composed.


“(The) voice of my love—
See, here he comes,
leaping over the mountains,
jumping over the (high) hills!

My love is likened to a gazelle,
or to a young stag, the leader (of the flock).
See, here he is standing
behind our back-wall,
gazing (in) from the pierced holes,
peering (in) from the lattices.

This lyric may be divided into two short stanzas, or strophes. An initial statement regarding the lover (lit., love, beloved, doD) of the young woman is followed by a poetic description of the lover’s approach. Let us consider this lyric from a formal standpoint, looking the common element in each stanza.

    1. “(The) voice of my love”
    2. “My love is likened to a gazelle…”

The “voice” (loq) in the first stanza is best understood as the sound of the young man as he draws near; perhaps even better is the idea of the young woman anticipating his approach by listening for it. It is the visual aspect that is emphasized in the second stanza, with the verb hm*D* (“be like, resemble”). In both stanzas, the primary image is of the young man as a strong young gazelle, deer, goat or ram—all of these animal-types apply to the wording.

The term yb!x= refers to a gazelle or deer, but a separate word yb!x= (derived from a different root) means “beauty, splendor”, so there is doubtless a bit of love-poetry wordplay involved here. The second compound term <yl!Y`a^h* rp#u) essentially signifies the young male animal (deer/goat/ram) who is the leader of the group (or flock/herd). The noun lY`a^ fundamentally means “(the one) in front”, i.e., foremost, leader, and the use of the plural here should probably be understood in a comprehensive sense.

    1. “See, here he comes”
    2. “See, here he is standing”

The principal lyric in each stanza begins with the compound particle hz#-hN@h!, an interjection that can be translated into English as something like “see here!” or “look here!” In the first stanza, the lover is coming (vb aoB); in the second, he has arrived and is standing (vb dm^u*) outside of the meeting place.

    1. “leaping over the mountains,
      jumping over the (high) hills”
    2. “gazing (in) from the pierced holes,
      peering (in) from the lattices”

The action of the young man in each stanza is described by a pair of participle-phrases. In the first stanza, describing the lover’s coming, the imagery is that of a strong and swift animal—gazelle, deer, or mountain-goat/ram—known for its leaping or jumping ability (vbs gl^D* and Jp^q*); both of these verbs are relatively rare, and are used almost exclusively in Old Testament poetry.

In the second stanza, the young man has arrived at the meeting-place, and he is standing outside. This meeting-place is the location where the two lovers can be together, envisioned as a secluded building or room (with walls). The young man stands at the “back-wall” (lt#K), a rare noun which occurs only here in the OT, and the meaning of which is indicated by parallels in Aramaic [cf. Dan 5:5; Ezra 5:8] and Arabic). The young woman calls it “our back-wall”, because it is the place where the two lovers are meeting, and so, in a sense, it belongs to them. Before entering, the young man looks inside, either to see if the young woman is there, or simply to gain a glimpse of her. Both of the verbs used to express this are quite rare: (1) jg~v*, which occurs elsewhere only in Psalm 33:14 and Isa 14:16, meaning “gaze (at)”; and (2) JWx (II), “peer/peep (in)”. The latter verb occurs only here, and is apparently separate from JWx (I), “sparkle, shine”, though perhaps a bit of wordplay is involved (i.e. sparkle of the eyes); the meaning (and existence) of the second root is suggested by a similar verb in Arabic (waƒwaƒ, cf. Pope, p. 391f).

The young man looks into the room through the openings in the wall; the poetic parallelism for this involves the nouns /oLj^ (literally a “pierced hole”, but usually understood as a window) and Er#j# (occurring only here, but its presumed meaning, “lattice-work”, is known from post-Biblical Hebrew).

According to my interpretation, the scenario is that the young woman is waiting for the young man to come to their place of meeting (i.e. for a sexual/romantic liaison). However, the image of the young man peering in to get a look at the girl allows for the possibility that she is tucked away in her own private room (perhaps by her family, to keep her away from the boy); in such a setting, “our back-wall” could refer to the family house. In at least one Sumerian love-poem, part of the corpus of Dumuzi/Inanna love songs, the young man (Dumuzi) is waiting longingly outside of the house of the young woman (Inanna), eager to know what she is doing inside (lines 1-2ff, Sefati, Love Songs; cf. also Kramer, SMR, p. 97).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

In the Targum, Talmud and Midrash Rabbah, the imagery of the young man (as a gazelle, etc) ‘leaping over the mountains and hills’ tended to be applied to the greatness of Moses and the Patriarchs, or interpreted from the standpoint of the salvation/deliverance of Israel throughout history (to be fulfilled again in the Messianic Age), e.g. (from the Targum):

“…behold, the glory of YHWH was revealed to Moses on Mount Horeb and He sent him to Egypt to release them [i.e. the House of Israel] and to bring them out from the bitter oppression of Egypt. And they leaped over [i.e. had their time of exile shortened]…by virtue of the merit of their fathers and skipped over the time of servitude…for the righteousness of their mothers, who are likened to the hills.” (translation in Pope, p. 390 [glosses mine])

Origen, in his Commentary, explains the “voice” of the beloved leaping over the mountains, etc, as the Word of God made incarnate in the person of Christ, coming toward the Bride. The ‘lattice-work’ of the wall is understood as nets by which the enemy (Satan) wishes to ensnare people. Before we can see the Bridegroom coming for our deliverance, we must first hear his Voice. The various sizes of the ‘mountains and hills’ are explained a number of ways, including in terms of the degrees of understanding that people (believers) have with regard to the Word of God. When people receive the Word, they themselves then “…become mountains and hills by virtue of their life and knowledge and teaching. And the Word of God is rightly said to leap on them, and to spring forth from them”.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his cycle of sermons, takes a typically more spiritual approach to interpreting these lines. For the “purified and discerning eye of the soul” is able to see and know the reality of the Beloved (Christ the incarnate Word of God) speaking to it through the windows: “…though the wall between then separates the pair, their verbal communication is unimpeded since his head leans through the windows, while his eye peers through the lattice work of the windows upon the interior” (translation Norris, p. 119). The partial barrier of the lattice-work represents “a certain sequence” in the activity of the Word in adapting human nature to God, as, for example, of the Light shining through the dark lattices of the Law, illuminating the hearts and minds of those “who are in darkness and the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79). The illumination of the soul through these windows and lattices eventually leads to a desire to see the sun (the Light) out in the open air.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Sefati, Love Songs” are to Yitschak Sefati, Love Songs in Sumerian Literature, Bar-Ilan Studies in Near Eastern Languages and Culture (Bar-Ilan University Press: 1998).

Those marked “Kramer, SMR” are to Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite: Aspects of Faith, Myth, and Ritual in Ancient Sumer (1969).
The translations of Gregory of Nyssa here are by Richard A. Norris, Jr., in The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, general editor Robert Louis Wilken (Eerdmans: 2003).